Browsing the archives for the importance tag.
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How to Turn Complex Choices into Hard Numbers

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I was recently struck by writer and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau‘s recommendation for a way to choose between a number of possible business opportunities, and I realized immediately that it was applicable not just to business decisions, but to any choice that involves a lot of competing possibilities with different pros and cons. It’s not a new idea, but it’s a useful one if you want to take a lot of possibilities and end up with a single score for each one so you can decide which is best.

In a nutshell, what you can do is figure out what factors are important to you and rate each idea or possibility on a scale of 1-5 for each of those factors. You can use paper, a word processor, a spreadsheet, or another medium. What you get in the end is a grid, kind of like this:

The 5-point scale
Why a 5-point scale? Because it’s detailed enough to be able to distinguish between levels like “terrible,” “bad,” “OK,” “good,” and “great” while not so detailed that it’s difficult to decide what value to assign. The process isn’t supposed to be surgically precise: it’s just meant to show us which way the wind is blowing. Our quick, subjective impressions of each item will generally be good enough information to provide the answers we’re looking for.

Keep in mind that 5 always means “best,” not necessarily “highest.” For instance, Hawaii has a 1 for “cost” not because the cost is low, but on the contrary because the cost is high and therefore merits the worst rating.

While I think a 5-point scale is especially handy, you can use any scale you want (say, 1-3 or 0-10, etc.). Just be sure to use the same scale for every factor.

Instant insight
You can see right away how this approach is handy. For instance, Hawaii might sound great, but when you factor in the very high cost and the lower amount of relaxation you experience because of airports, reservations, and all the rest, it doesn’t stack up as well (using this method) as the other two options.

Weighty questions
With that said, there’s a major problem with the system as Guillebeau and many other people use it, which is that it treats all considerations as equally important. In many cases, that works out fine; as I say, we’re just trying to get a general direction. In other cases, though, it can be … well, less than ideal. Consider the following example:

Using this approach, it’s easy to see that it’s better to dive without a parachute than with one–except that … you know … it isn’t.

So how do we fix this problem? By using weightings!

What are weightings? They’re just a way of adding up or averaging information proportionate to other information, in this case to information about how important each item is. By introducing weightings, we can let our grid reflect our priorities. Consider this new version of the skydiving grid:

Our totals have changed completely, and they shouldn’t be compared to totals from any other grid, but they tell a clear story: even for this obviously danger-loving individual, skydiving with a parachute is a much better choice than skydiving without.

Of course, using weightings is more complicated than not using weightings, especially in terms of calculations, because you have to multiply each rating by its weighting before you add things up. If you don’t want to get technical, I’d like to invite you to skip down to the picture of the kitten now, and I’ll mention that I can probably upload a template that won’t require you to do any of the technical work if enough people want it.

If you don’t mind getting technical and are following along in Excel, here’s how I set up the spreadsheet so that the total would use the weighting values I specified:

The little $ signs, in case you haven’t used them in Excel before, mean “use the row (or column) I specify even if I copy this formula somewhere else.” By referring to B$4, C$4, and D$4 instead of B4, C4, and D4, we can copy the formula from F5 into all of the rows below, even if we add a hundred options, without having to change the formula.

OK, it’s safe to read on! No more technical stuff!
photo by Merlijn Hoek

Just useful; not miraculous
Weighting isn’t perfect either, of course. It’s hard to put hard numbers on the relative importance of things like “environmental friendliness” and “good for the kids,” say, and if we just put the highest importance on everything, then we might as well not be using weightings at all. Also, if we have two different but related factors (like “general aesthetics” and “goes with the furniture”), then both of those add together to give them a weight that’s probably higher than intended–although if we’re using weightings, this can be fixed by cutting both weights roughly in half because the two are in a sense working together. This same problem comes up if we don’t use weightings, but in that situation, there’s no good way to fix it, so that’s another point in favor of using weightings instead of unweighted ratings.

I don’t want to lose sight of the benefit here: the amazing thing is that you can take any number of choices–just a handful or hundreds–and evaluate them all at the same time. There are other ways to make these kinds of choices, like filtering and sequencing (see “How Fewer Choices Make for Better Decisions“), but using weighted ratings makes it possible to evaluate them all at once and to tweak the decision-making process afterward to see how that changes things. (Because you can always decide to add or change your ratings or alter their weights, and in a spreadsheet or similar solution, those changes will immediately show new scores.)

Using your results
If you’re using a spreadsheet, you can sort by totals when you’re done (in Excel, highlight all of your data, including the choice names and the totals, then choose Data > Sort) so that your choices are then listed in the order from best to worst, according to your spreadsheet.

You don’t have to then make the choice at the top just because it got the highest score: again, this process is just a way to put things in perspective. However, that perspective can be invaluable for figuring out what to actually do next.

My example
I put together a spreadsheet for myself of a few of the many, many speaking and writing projects and possibilities I’ve started or considered, and set it up using weighted ratings, as I’ve described above. Having a technical background and being very interested in squeezing every last drop of meaning out of my information, I made some further enhancements, which you can see here. Note the little red corners: those mean that I can hover over the factor with my mouse to see details of how I should rate, so that I can assign ratings consistently. I’ve also used conditional formatting to highlight better and worse information with different colors. (You can click on the image to see it at full size.)

If you’d like a copy of my template for the grid above, please comment here. I’ll put something fairly user-friendly together and post it if there’s a need.

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Principles for Prioritizing, Part III: Feelings and Finding the Top

Strategies and goals

This is the third article in a short series on prioritizing. The first article in the series, “Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets,” includes links to other articles on the site about organizing and prioritizing and is followed by “Principles for Prioritizing, Part II: Unimportant Tasks.”

3. How important something feels isn’t always a good indication of how important it is
To gauge how important something really is, it helps to put it in the context of what you really want in life. What are your key priorities? Going by gut feeling can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction because a task may be appealing or exciting or seem important because we’re wrapped up in it, when in fact it isn’t as important as other, less dramatic tasks. Try to judge the importance of an item from a distance, when you’re not deeply wrapped up in the task itself, by thinking about what effect it is likely to have in your life.

To get out of an obsession with a particular task that isn’t really a priority, allow your attention to focus on something else for at least a few minutes: have a conversation with a friend about a subject of mutual interest, or do a small task that’s unrelated to the one you’ve been involved in. These few minutes allow your brain to reorganize so that it’s not focused on that one possibly unimportant task, and let your physiology reset so that you’re not swept up in the biochemical side of emotion. In this state of mind, you can consider that appealing task in the context of all your other priorities.

4. The most important goal of prioritization is to find your top few tasks–especially your top one task
If you have a 200-item task list, it’s not particularly important to get all of your items prioritized so that, for instance, items 183 and 184 are in the proper order. Realistically, you may never get to items 183 and 184, and even if you do, circumstances are likely to change by the time you get there. The most effective way to prioritize is to care just about the top few tasks for the moment, so that you know what to start doing immediately and have one or two things queued up after you finish that first item. Doing this allows you to do what a task list is meant to help you do: focus on the one thing that it would benefit you most to be doing right now.

Finding those top few tasks may mean skimming over all 200 (or 20, or 2,000) items in your task list, but when skimming, the only thing to be thinking about is “what here would it be really good for me to tackle very soon?” The tasks that meet this criterion can then be sorted through with the question “Which of these would be most beneficial to do right now?”

That list of “very soon” things should never be more than a half dozen items long unless they’re very small items if you want to make good use of your searching. Anything more than that, and priorities are likely to change before you get to all of the items. Prioritize for the moment.

Photo by Chris JL

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Principles for Prioritizing, Part II: Unimportant Tasks

Strategies and goals

This is the second article in a short series on prioritizing. The first article in the series, “Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets,” appeared Monday, and includes links to other articles on the site about organizing and prioritizing.

Less important tasks may need to be dropped
When prioritizing tasks, we’re always dealing with at least two variables: how important something is and when it needs to be done. Do we do the immediate, less important thing or start working on the longer-term, more important thing instead? There’s no easy answer to this, but there are some ways to figure it out.

Of course important tasks that need to be done soon should take priority, and unimportant tasks that aren’t needed right away should be bumped to the end of your list–which for many of us may mean (sadly) that there will be no time for them. But of those other two possibilities–more important but less pressing and less important but more pressing–the decisions become more difficult. If you find that you are generally getting important things done on time without your life going haywire at all, you can probably afford to do the more urgent but less important tasks some of the time. But if you find that important, long-term things are often not getting done, not getting done well, or not getting done until the last minute, then what generally needs to happen is for some of those short-term but less important items to be dropped entirely from your task list so that you can get the more important things done.

For example, if you have a choice of working on some tax paperwork that’s due next week and reading a book for your book club meeting tomorrow, and if you find you often have trouble getting things like that tax paperwork done on time, then it’s probably time to take a hiatus from the book club.

To put it another way: effective prioritization often means giving up on less important tasks.

Photo by gingerpig2000

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Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets

Strategies and goals

One of the most challenging things about managing a task list is prioritizing. You may literally have hundreds of things to do, from raking the leaves to learning a new job skill to making up a will. Comparing and ordering these items can be overwhelming.

Following are some basic principles to apply when prioritizing tasks that can help make sense out of a very complex set of priorities.

1. Priorities change all the time
It would be nice to be able to assign every task a priority that never changes, but from day to day–and sometimes hour to hour–too many things change for this to be the case. Scheduling a check-up becomes gradually more urgent the longer we put it off, or suddenly more urgent if health problems come up. Projects around the house may have to slide down the list of priorities when a new obligation comes up that makes it unlikely there will be time for them. Problems solve themselves or get worse from inattention; opportunities arise; people change their preferences and actions. Therefore, the best prioritization we can really achieve is the priority of things at the given moment, and the most effective task list is one that you can (and do) regularly re-prioritize.

This series will continue over the next several posts.

Related articles that may be of interest include:

Photo by nerovivo

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How Exceptions Cripple Organization

Strategies and goals

There’s a common, natural tendency many of us have to think of a thing as more important if our attention is focused on it. This can both help and hurt us. The helpful thing is that this can offer an easy way to get started on a task, because the more we think about something, the more likely we are to do actually do it.

Where this instinct hurts us, though, is in situations where we don’t organize a piece of information because we’re worried about losing track of it.

The problem is that to keep on top of a variety of incoming information, we need to handle all of it, pretty much without exception, using the same system. For instance, if we’re using a Getting Things Done approach to organization and an important letter comes in, Getting Things Done tells us to process it immediately or put it in our inbox. But we may hold back, thinking “No, I have to be sure to remember to do this! I’d better prop it up in front of my computer instead.”

Or if using a clean inbox approach, we might get a long e-mail from a friend who’s been out of touch for some time and think “Oh, I’d better not file that in my Reply/Act box, because I don’t want to forget to write back as soon as I can.”

Unfortunately, continuing to do this leads to pieces of paper lying around all over the place or e-mails stacking up in the inbox, each one of which distracts us from our organizational system and is hard to keep track of on its own. It’s too easy to not trust an organizational system and to try to make exceptions for whatever’s right in front of our eyes. When we do this, the organizational system rapidly collapses, because organizational systems that aren’t used to handle pretty much everything aren’t much use.

If a task or message can be handled right away, though, the situation is a bit different: responding to something immediately may bypass priorities (for instance, you might spend a lot of time on the reply to that friend when it’s more pressing to follow up on a medical issue), but something will get done. The most serious problems come when something that can’t be dealt with right away is held out for special handling.

The essence of an organizational system, or at least of the kind of organizational systems I can recommend as being truly effective, is using it for everything and faithfully reviewing everything in your system often enough that you never lose track of anything that goes in. It requires a leap of faith as well as a change of habit–and so it’s no wonder that it takes some effort to make the transition from organized to disorganized. But when that transition happens, our efforts are richly rewarded not just by improving our productivity, but also by transforming scattered, anxious feelings into a measure of confidence and serenity.

Photo by nickwheeleroz

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